Republican candidates sidestep Donald Trump in midterm closing message


POINT PLEASANT, N.J. (AP) — Tom MacArthur is doing something that's familiar to dozens of candidates in the most fiercely contested congressional races: Tiptoeing around President Donald Trump.

The Republican congressman has done more than anyone in New Jersey to help Trump. He was the only member of his delegation to vote for Trump's tax cuts. And he personally authored a provision that briefly resurrected Trump's health care plan.

But on the eve of the election, he sounds like a member of the Trump resistance.

"I've worked with Democrats to get things done that matter to South Jersey," MacArthur told The Associated Press after addressing hundreds of veterans at an American Legion weekend celebration without mentioning the president's name. "I work with the president when I can, and when I think he's doing something that's bad for Jersey, I resist that, I push back on that."

In an election that hinges on Trump's standing, candidates from both parties are struggling to find the right balance when it comes to Trump. While liberals demand Trump's impeachment, many Democratic candidates are focused on health care. Republicans in Washington, meanwhile, are all in for Trump, but the party's most important House candidates are spending their final days attacking Democrats for resisting — without saying much about the president who's being resisted.

In an interview, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel suggested the midterm elections are not a referendum on Trump.

"I don't see it," she said. "The candidates that we have that are doing better are the candidates that are focused on district specific issues and not nationalizing the race."

"Democrats don't talk about results because they have none to stand on," McDaniel added. "I've never seen this level of obstruction."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez downplays Trump's impact on the midterms as well.

"Health care is on the ballot," he said in an interview. "They want to take it away, we want to preserve it."

Perez said his party's closing message addresses Trump only in that Democrats would provide a check on Trump's policies on health care, the economy and the ethical lapses in his administration.

"The rule of law has been replaced by the rule of Trump," Perez said. "We need guardrails in Washington."

Voters will decide whether the president's party will maintain control of the House and Senate on Nov. 6. A setback in either chamber would almost certainly derail Trump's agenda. It would also give Democrats subpoena power to probe the president's many personal and professional controversies — in addition to giving them an opportunity to pursue impeachment.

In the fight for the Senate, Republicans running in states where Trump remains popular are eager to make the president the centerpiece of their closing messages. Trump and his favorite policies are featured in final-days campaign ads for Republican candidates in Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia.

But in the high-stakes battle for the House, which is playing out among a more suburban and educated electorate, candidates on both sides are handling Trump with great care.

Republican Rep. David Young is locked in a dead heat with Democrat Cindy Axne in Iowa's 3rd Congressional District.

Young steered clear of the president as he chatted with voters strolling through Des Moines' farmer's market over the weekend. After one woman proclaimed her devotion to Trump, Young ignored the president and thanked her for the support.

"We're running on our record of delivering solutions for Iowans and, on the broad scope of things, the economy," Young later said when asked about his closing message.

He's stressing his effort to avoid partisan national debates, focusing instead on local issues like expanded renewable fuel sales, a $190-million ethanol plant in western Iowa and farm measures aimed at protecting soil and water. Nowhere in Young's closing argument does he mention the president, except to say he disagrees with the administration's imposition of tariffs that threaten Iowa's export-heavy agricultural economy.

Nor does Young address health care, even though it's the centerpiece of his Democratic opponent's message against him.

"We need to send people out to Washington who understand how important it is to protect people with pre-existing conditions," Axne said after rallying volunteers over the weekend.

The Democrat is not attacking Trump directly either. She hints at a climate of intolerance coming from the administration by calling her candidacy "a choice that will represent every voice in this district, no matter what color you are."

In Kentucky's 6th District, it's easy to find Democrats who want to attack Trump. But at least one Democratic volunteer backing Amy McGrath against Republican Rep. Andy Barr knows not to mention the president's name.

McGrath, a former Marine, has alternated between condemning Trump's more controversial statements and supporting some of his policies.

"I'm not somebody who is this total anti-Trumper," McGrath said in a weekend interview. "I think his style and his leadership traits are not the traits that I have learned of what good leaders are supposed to be. I think he divides more than he unites Americans."

But, she continued, "if Donald Trump has a good idea, I'll be with him."

It's much the same dynamic in Minnesota's 1st District, one of the few GOP pickup opportunities this cycle.

Democratic candidate Dan Feehan described America in "a moment of chaos" as he rallied around 100 volunteers Sunday morning. "There is something out there that is dark, that is filled with hate," said the Army veteran, not once mentioning the president's name in his remarks.

In a subsequent interview, Feehan said his message has been focused on the need for independent voices in Washington to counter its dysfunction. As for Trump, Feehan said his biggest hope is that Congress becomes a functional co-equal branch of government to serve as a check and balance.

"That means working with President Trump when it makes sense for southern Minnesota, but having the independence again to stand up to him when it does not," he said.

In Michigan's 8th District, Democrat Elissa Slotkin is emphasizing her work for both Republican and Democratic presidents and three tours in Iraq in her quest to defeat Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop. She's particularly focused on health care while decrying "the tone and tenor" of the nation's political climate.

Just don't ask her to blame Trump — as many Democratic activists do.

"To me, it's not any one person, though leadership climate is certainly set from the top," Slotkin told The AP. "For me, it's just more than one person."

Back in New Jersey, Republican MacArthur said Trump is a factor in virtually every other race in the nation. He acknowledged he has done more to help the president than any other member of his state's delegation.

"I'm certainly not running away from it," MacArthur said. He later noted: "I have been among the most bipartisan members of Congress."